In a sense, Saint Augustine is really where our country began, but it wasn’t exactly the first attempt at forming a colony in what would eventually become the United States, since both the Spanish and French had made brave efforts towards a colony for several years prior to the founding of Saint Augustine. Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the city on September 8, 1565, after searching the nearby coast for an apt spot for settlement and named the city “Saint Augustin” after Saint Augustine of Hippo because he had first spotted the land on August 28 of the same year, which happens to be the feast day of that saint.
Many think Juan Ponce de León founded Saint Augustine per the fabled “fountain of youth” story involving the explorer, but Ponce de León—who was the governor of the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico—had simply explored the coast of Florida and claimed it for the King of Spain as the ranking viceregal official in the region. Ponce de León thought Florida, like the islands he was familiar with in the Caribbean, was an island, however, and was not aware it was part of a larger land mass.
The Spanish settlement at Saint Augustine was key for several reasons—not least of which was that, under the command of René Goulaine de Laudonnière, the French were already establishing a presence in the area, having explored the Saint Johns River and its inlets from the Atlantic and contacted local chiefs of the native Timucua people. As is often the case when nations are enemies or in competition, there was little communication between the French and Spanish efforts, and no one really seemed to have a good idea of the geography of the region they were exploring. The French had succeeded in forming the settlement of Fort Caroline where the modern-day city of Jacksonville stands, establishing it a year prior to Saint Augustine; however, it was not continued as a viable settlement as was Saint Augustine.
Life in these early colonial outposts was understandably difficult, with endless land clearing and other work to be done and the threat of hostile natives. Many of the Frenchmen who settled at Fort Caroline eventually returned, unhappy with colonial hardship, to France. Had the Spanish not established Saint Augustine a year later, it can be postulated that continued French efforts around Fort Caroline might have led to the entire region becoming a French stronghold and the history of Florida—and of the United States—could have been vastly different from what it is today.
Ponce de León and Menéndez de Avilés came to the New World aboard Spanish galeóns, sailing ships used mainly for exploration and trade but armed with cannons and crewed by naval sailors. The Kingdom of Spain was one of Europe’s great naval powers and their main goal was expanding their empire, forming colonies, and producing crops overseas that could not be easily obtained in Europe. For the time—a period when most industrial production was local and limited, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other tradesmen making what the nearby community required—expansion of agriculture was the most lucrative business approach. The New World supposedly offered vast tracts of fertile land, possibly entire cities of gold, and crops that were not native to Europe or otherwise difficult to produce. It was to this end that Florida—assumed to be an island like Puerto Rico—was settled.
Life on the galeóns was rough: while considered grand ships of the navy of their time, these vessels paled in comparison in size to today’s modern cargo freighters. Their only source of power was their huge sails and if they wanted for wind, they could remain adrift for hours, or even days, with no real means of propelling themselves. Leaving Spain, they would have to take all the food and other provisions their crews required for a long voyage to the Caribbean and their crews had to be large to undertake the difficult work of maintaining these wooden ships, their sails, and then the exploration of the New World once they arrived.
The Spanish non-profit Fundacíon Nao Victoria commissioned a replica of the period galeóns in 2010, and now this ship, under the title “El Galeón” sails the world crewed with professional sailors and student volunteers, visiting ports its ancestors would have visited such as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Saint Augustine. It has travelled as far as China and has called at most of the major ports of the United States plus many in Europe, as a living museum of Spain’s golden age of sea exploration.
I was provided a tour of the vessel while it was moored in Saint Augustine (it will leave for Philadelphia in early June but will return to Saint Augustine in September for the celebration of five hundred years of the city’s existence) by one of its commanding officers, Fernando Viota Pecharromán. As the ship travels the globe, it has hidden beneath its authentic period timber hull two powerful diesel engines that provide it with ample power beyond its sails, but it still uses the sails when winds are good and conditions will allow. Likewise, it carries a full suite of modern digital navigational instruments as required for ocean-going vessels, but also has aboard replicas of the type of instruments used for celestial navigation in Avilés’ times—a compass and a sextant, plus paper nautical charts and other navigational aids. Fernando informed me that the crew has actually navigated with these period instruments several times on the open sea and tries to use all the traditional aspects of the ship when possible, not only for demonstrations for the public but to educate the students who are aboard about how things were done in the old ways.
Tours of the ship have added a great dynamic to how tourists learn about Saint Augustine’s early days: We all know that the Spanish explorers arrived by ship, but it’s a totally different experience to be aboard an authentic replica of such a vessel and to see what the living quarters, tools, and general life aboard would have been like, noting that for weeks on end—months for some voyages of exploration—this relatively small vessel was home for many brave men.
Ships of this type also were the sole means for conveying agricultural produce back to Spain. Part of the mission set out before Avilés and his men was to establish a core city, based around a fort and garrison, from which planters could expand outward into the nearby countryside and develop the type of plantations Spain hoped would produce valuable goods and turn a tidy profit. Trade with Native Americans was also a goal, but it should be clear that all colonial powers—whether Spanish, British, French, or otherwise—viewed the New World as a place where their own people could immigrate and produce viable agricultural settlements. This core ethos sustained the growth of what would become the United States right up to the Revolutionary War.
Of course, all major early settlements had to be port cities also, and Saint Augustine was chosen in good part for its sheltered but well-located port. A large fort, the Castillo San de Marcos, was established overlooking the harbor and was the center of military operations for the region. This fort later was renamed “Fort Saint Mark” by the British and then by American forces “Fort Marion” but remained a vital aspect of actual military functions up through the Civil War. While the Castillo now is open for tours and is maintained by the National Park Service, Saint Augustine is also the headquarters of the Florida National Guard, retaining an active legacy of its proud military history even now.
While the plantation economy desired of colonies did not really materialize for Saint Augustine under Spanish rule, it was important in geopolitical and military power in the region. With their lucrative colonial cities of Savannah and Charleston and successful plantations surrounding these cities, the British worried that Spanish Florida could be a threat to their own colonial enterprises and Saint Augustine helped prevent the Brits from taking over the region. Saint Augustine remained the capital city of Spanish Florida, and when Florida became a territory of the United States, for two years prior to the establishment of Tallahassee as the new capital, Saint Augustine served the new territory in this capacity. Today Saint Augustine serves as the county seat of Saint Johns County.
The historic Casa Monica Hotel served as the courthouse for the county in the mid-twentieth century before returning once again to its role as a hotel. The Casa Monica—which was renamed for a time by Henry Flagler the “Cordova Hotel”—was one of several grand hotels in the city during the first heyday of Floridian tourism after the Civil War in the age of rail. The hotel’s builder, Franklin Smith, the famous railroad magnate Flagler, and other wealthy men were able to attract America’s growing industrial upper class to Florida to vacation in the winter, and it was via this foray into holiday tourism at Saint Augustine that Florida really became a destination—long before Miami and Orlando were considered tourism hot-spots. Miami landowner Julia Tuttle enticed Flagler to Miami later, but Saint Augustine was the first prime Florida vacation epicenter, taking cues from Palatka about thirty miles west on the Saint Johns River which had brought in tourists such as President Grant and General Lee. Unlike Palatka, however, which mainly offered warm weather (as opposed to cold northern winters), river cruises, and good fishing, Saint Augustine presented tourists with a larger, more-refined city as well as the nearby ocean and its beaches.
Today much of Saint Augustine’s tourist trade centers around the city’s long and complex history. Thankfully, city leaders have for years seen the merit in preserving key structures and the entire historic character of the downtown area, making it one of the most cohesive historical districts in America as well as one of the oldest. The fact that the Castillo de San Marcos has also been retained and is open for tours adds another dynamic to Saint Augustine and makes it the only city in any state that can demonstrate a Spanish colonial settlement’s civil and military heritage via actual period architecture and living history.
A variety of other historic properties such as the Spanish Military Hospital have also been retained as museums, and the grand hotels remain too. Flagler College’s central campus is centered around what was Flagler’s massive Ponce de León Hotel, the Casa Monica functions once again as a working hotel, and the Alcazar Hotel is now the city’s Lightner Museum. Thus the impressive architecture of these old hotels is also a key draw for tourists as well as the much older colonial architecture. The hotels also exhibit a rather unique marriage of Victorian influence and tropical aesthetics. That said, Saint Augustine will forever be “the oldest city” not only in historical fact but in the fondness its citizens and visitors have for the pivotal role it played in America’s early history.
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